Bernanke Happy-Slaps China on Global Imbalances

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 11/19/2010 12:03:00 AM
There's a new Bernanke speech that he will deliver tomorrow at a central banker's shindig in Frankfurt that's sure to garner a lot of comment as it focuses on very topical global economic imbalances. Bernanke is certainly no stranger to coining memorable phrases such as the "global saving glut," and he may have a brand new bag here with his idea of a "two-speed recovery." My summary?
  • The US is pursuing appropriately accommodative monetary policies given its situation;
  • Emerging economies complain about capital inflows negatively affecting their economies, but it's a natural manifestation of their positive return differentials and higher growth rates;
  • Certain developing countries (that's you, China) exacerbate these inflows by intervening to keep their currency weak, making speculative monies enter in the expectation of future revaluation;
  • Remedying global economic imbalances will be facilitated by crisis-hit developed economies running accommodative policies and fast-growing developing ones relenting on massaging exchange rates;
Here is the key portion where the above points are made:
It is instructive to contrast this situation with what would happen in an international system in which exchange rates were allowed to fully reflect market fundamentals. In the current context, advanced economies would pursue accommodative monetary policies as needed to foster recovery and to guard against unwanted disinflation. At the same time, emerging market economies would tighten their own monetary policies to the degree needed to prevent overheating and inflation. The resulting increase in emerging market interest rates relative to those in the advanced economies would naturally lead to increased capital flows from advanced to emerging economies and, consequently, to currency appreciation in emerging market economies. This currency appreciation would in turn tend to reduce net exports and current account surpluses in the emerging markets, thus helping cool these rapidly growing economies while adding to demand in the advanced economies. Moreover, currency appreciation would help shift a greater proportion of domestic output toward satisfying domestic needs in emerging markets. The net result would be more balanced and sustainable global economic growth.

Given these advantages of a system of market-determined exchange rates, why have officials in many emerging markets leaned against appreciation of their currencies toward levels more consistent with market fundamentals? The principal answer is that currency undervaluation on the part of some countries has been part of a long-term export-led strategy for growth and development. This strategy, which allows a country's producers to operate at a greater scale and to produce a more diverse set of products than domestic demand alone might sustain, has been viewed as promoting economic growth and, more broadly, as making an important contribution to the development of a number of countries. However, increasingly over time, the strategy of currency undervaluation has demonstrated important drawbacks, both for the world system and for the countries using that strategy.

First, as I have described, currency undervaluation inhibits necessary macroeconomic adjustments and creates challenges for policymakers in both advanced and emerging market economies. Globally, both growth and trade are unbalanced, as reflected in the two-speed recovery and in persistent current account surpluses and deficits. Neither situation is sustainable. Because a strong expansion in the emerging market economies will ultimately depend on a recovery in the more advanced economies, this pattern of two-speed growth might very well be resolved in favor of slow growth for everyone if the recovery in the advanced economies falls short. Likewise, large and persistent imbalances in current accounts represent a growing financial and economic risk.

Second, the current system leads to uneven burdens of adjustment among countries, with those countries that allow substantial flexibility in their exchange rates bearing the greatest burden (for example, in having to make potentially large and rapid adjustments in the scale of export-oriented industries) and those that resist appreciation bearing the least.

Third, countries that maintain undervalued currencies may themselves face important costs at the national level, including a reduced ability to use independent monetary policies to stabilize their economies and the risks associated with excessive or volatile capital inflows. The latter can be managed to some extent with a variety of tools, including various forms of capital controls, but such approaches can be difficult to implement or lead to microeconomic distortions. The high levels of reserves associated with currency undervaluation may also imply significant fiscal costs if the liabilities issued to sterilize reserves bear interest rates that exceed those on the reserve assets themselves. Perhaps most important, the ultimate purpose of economic growth is to deliver higher living standards at home; thus, eventually, the benefits of shifting productive resources to satisfying domestic needs must outweigh the development benefits of continued reliance on export-led growth.

It's me again. Yes, a lot of it is self-serving: the Fed did not throw down the gauntlet in international currency war by signalling its intention to buy $600B worth of Treasuries, unfettered reserve accumulation by the others introduces worse and inappropriate distortions, etc. At the end of the day, however, I believe that these mechanistic economist's prescriptions have run their course in attempting to solve global economic imbalances. For a more nuanced way, I'll write about that in a later post.